Words Can Carry Weight
Do you remember when I called you late one night? I needed someone to confide in and you offered to listen. A scary event had happened to me a few days prior. I was having a hard time processing it because I couldn’t believe something like this actually happened to me. I was away on business for a few days, staying at a standard budget hotel and on the last night at 2 a.m. drunkards were running amuck in the hallway. The room phone was not working so I was forced to go down to the lobby.
Perhaps my annoyance and the time of night clouded my better judgment because I stormed off to an abandoned lobby where I found myself cornered by a hotel employee. I stood there in my old band t-shirt and shorts, my usual nighttime attire, but I’m not one to be in a public space so dressed down and bare. Perhaps the hotel employee sensed my sudden vulnerability and pounced on that discomfort as he drew closer and beckoned me to follow him to a secluded back room to file my complaint. I tried to cover myself with my arms and in that moment thinking how stupid I was to march down there without changing. What was I thinking?
This had only occurred a week prior when I asked to call you and it that night still haunted me.
“Of course, you can call me,” you said. “Please tell me everything. Jesus, I’m sorry to hear this happened.”
I conveyed the eerie details of how he looked at me with a Cheshire cat-like grin stretched across his face, knowing we were alone. I used every word I could think of to relay the fear that swam through my veins as the employee continued his attempt to lure me into a back office far from the bright lights of the lobby.
“The complaint forms are just back here,” he said. “All the way in the back.”
I remember his words so clearly because in that moment I kept thinking this isn’t right, this isn’t right, and my heart hammered against my chest. I was alone in that moment. I searched and searched around hoping to see any sign of life, but it was 2:30 a.m. and breath caught in my throat as I recalled the details. I paused because I needed to gather myself. I didn’t want you to hear me cry, not yet at least. We weren’t there yet with our friendship.
Yes, we were together for a moment, but friendship seemed to be the better course of action for us.. So, I turned to you, my dear friend, to hear the male perspective and double check I was warranted to be scared out of my mind.
I basically whisper the whole story to you over the phone’s receiver, afraid my family would overhear me. I don’t want my family to know how frightened I was in that moment, but you, I trusted. I could almost hear you holding your breath as I told you the rest of the story.
The employee insisted the paperwork to file a complaint was in the far back office in the dark area where the lights didn’t seem to work. I peered in and he gestured toward the corner, his grin only growing as he cocked his head to the side, waiting for me to follow. It’s such an odd detail to remember his smile because all his teeth were showing. It’s the type of smile you only give when you are really excited about something. I wondered why would you smile if I am about to file a complaint against your hotel?
“Paperwork?” I questioned. “Not on the computer? That doesn’t make sense.”
I held my hands behind my back so he wouldn’t see them trembling. There was no way I would give him the satisfaction that his scare tactics were working. Yet in that moment images flashed before my eyes, colors of red blurred together with pictures from every movie, TV show, story, magazine article, and anything else I’ve read when a woman found herself in this instance of how it goes from bad to worse. Images of women crying and trying to understand why me, why me? Was I about to become another statistic? Am I about to become a woman with her own grim tale of being taken advantage of because I was alone?
Dread wrapped around my heart as I took several steps away from him. No, no, no. I would not let him win so I planted my feet. Those flashing images continued to play in my mind and I debated: do I fight or flight? I used every adjective and word I could think of to explain this deep-seated fear to,
redacted, because I needed someone to understand that terror of what may have happened next. My pulse still races whenever I think about it, even as I write this. His eyes glowed with knowing because there wasn’t anyone around and I hated him so much for having that cruel look on his face. The heaviness in my chest kept interchanging between hatred and fear. I still feel that pure animosity towards him and even now as my hands unintentionally curl into fists anytime I think back to that moment.
“What finally broke that moment?” you asked.
I took one step back and shook my head no to the employee.
“No, I would not go back there,” I told him.
His smile vanished so quickly that my stomach curdled at the sight I took inventory of the nearest item to use as a weapon because ‘just in case.’ I was a fast runner if I needed to be, but could I take him?
I was lucky that night.-
A hallway camera was present, I saw the nearest escape route, those small steps backwards, and I looked back to him. Maybe my death glare finally worked because we went back to the lobby after our unspoken showdown. I ended up filing two complaints.
Even after all of that I still double-checked the hotel guidelines, their upper management, and even corporate to make sure I wasn’t overreacting:
It was against policy whatever this guy was attempting to do. I had to make sure the regulations were on my side.
“That was unprecedented procedure,” the hotel corporate headquarters told me. “And…creepy.”
Of course headquarters wants to keep the customer happy, but I needed someone to validate my fears when I told you. I wanted someone to tell me I was safe and ok. You,
redacted, your soothing words offered the comfort I wanted in that moment to ease me of this tension I felt in my soul. How is it in light of the Me Too movement some people still feel confident enough to continue pulling moves like this? What gives them this entitlement to think they could get away with it?
Yet, what I didn’t count on was for you, redacted, to lead me to re-experience those feelings of terror only a month later.
Sexual harassment has many layers to it, however its definition is clearly laid out in black and white. According to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health it’s described as “unwanted sexual contact or behavior that happens more than once at work, home, or in school. It includes any unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors…” They also define harassment as “any unwelcome behavior or comments made by one person to another,” which can be difficult to prove or document, yet can still be threatening to the person who experiences it. This can also include someone staring/talking about your body in a sexual way or making offensive sexual gestures or facial expressions.
Did you know every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted and people ages 18 to 34 are more at risk to be sexually assaulted according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network? Words used can be considered sexual harassment even when used among friends or in a “joking” manner even while we were on a virtual call. Words thrown so carelessly can carry weight and linger in a person’s mind, endlessly turning over and over. It may lead someone to wonder what if we had this conversation face-to-face and there were no pandemic restrictions in place?
It’s such an unnerving “what if” scenario that haunts me because your words,
redacted, have etched themselves into my mind and they won’t slip away. We somehow fell into an argument that quickly blossomed to the heart of what you actually wanted but couldn’t get because of pandemic restrictions: a sexual favor.
My friendly demeanor towards you does not equate to sexual tension, but for some reason when I said this, you thought I was making a joke. I reiterated I was firm about friendship-only and you pressed your luck by repeating your stance that you were owed something physical for being a “nice guy.”
Thank goodness this was only a phone call because within that moment the familiar feeling of dread poured back into my heart. My stomach dropped with disappointment as you tried to coerce me into something I certainly didn’t want. You weren’t backing down no matter how many times I said no. A simple friendship seemed to be off the table because our love for banter had to mean something more, according to you. Then would that mean I have sexual relations with all my friends, I questioned?
I had turned to you when I was feeling unnerved by that hotel encounter to seek solace and understanding. I was grateful you listened and provided me with the assurance I was ok. Yet, now with your new words,
redacted, you seemed to have forgotten that event all together and you talked over me anytime I attempted to give you reason. Using your own past traumas and your loneliness to guilt me into getting what you wanted was a new low I had never seen or experienced before. I wondered, were you actually worse than that hotel employee?
You pushed and pushed simply not believing my words that I had no interest in any sexual relationship. You had a strange assurance you would eventually get your way once the government-mandated sanctions were lifted. My words of no were unacceptable to you, if anything they were unfathomable as though I were speaking a different language beyond your comprehension. How could I say no? How dare I say no? Perhaps the definition of friends needs to be spelled out because friends do not use threatening language or coerce them or sexually harass one another. It still counts if it’s via telephone or a virtual call. I checked the regulations: they are on my side.
Bullying and coercion falls under the umbrella of sexual assault according to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health. Women are conditioned to doubt our senses and question if our traumatizing experiences are actually valid, which was why I looked it up to make sure I wasn’t overthinking the situation. Our “disagreement” didn’t sit right in my heart and the mental red flags were going up left and right and yet I still questioned my senses. According to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health website it’s advised if you have experienced sexual harassment it’s imperative to tell the person to stop and most importantly keep a record of it. You write down the dates, place, time, and tell any witness including friends so there is a solid record of it and multiple sources to back up your claims. I turned to close friends to make sure I wasn’t reading too much into it.
Once again- I wasn’t.
Their responses flooded my phone with their concern and anger and they used words like: run, cut him off, psychopath, entitled, and manipulative. So clearly your words were not normal because then another thought occurred to me: I didn’t dare to tell my family. I know them well enough to envision them not using words, but only actions.
My friends’ words offered comfort and once again that reassurance that my sense of panic towards you was warranted.
You used your words against me, but not just any words, words that attacked me, my safety, and my mental well-being. They frightened me. My trust in you dissolved so quickly from the very moment they flew out of your mouth, stifling the air. I held my breath and prayed maybe I misheard. It led to so many questions: What if we had decided to meet up and had this conversation face-to-face? Would I be making the same decisions like back at that hotel? Would I be searching for the nearest weapon to defend myself against you? Would I be preparing to fight or flight? Would I have the same adrenaline pumping through my veins as I contemplate my next course of action against you? Or maybe I would have stood my ground and called you out for your words? These scenarios play in my head every now and then as I attempt to let this incident fade into the bad memories pile and yet as I write this I’m still wondering…
Then a week later you requested to be absolved for your indiscretions. Forgiveness is a possibility, but me using words to absolve you would be an empty gesture. Whatever that feeling is inside you I cannot help it fade because it’s a personal demon you’ll have to face alone. Your words have lingered in the air, never quite dissipating. They hang there making sure I don’t forget. Once these ugly words came out it changed everything between us. They revealed too much of your character and I allowed myself to drift away hoping to never get entangled again.
My words to you: you are a lost soul in a sea of uncertainty. I won’t be entirely comfortable around you for some time, but I hope you find help because your words were dangerous, entitled, and scary. They carry weight to them that could lead to consequences one day.
Loumarie Ivette Rodriguez is a newspaper reporter in Connecticut and earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She was previously the editor-in-chief for the Lunch Ticket literary journal for Winter/Spring Issue 17 and Summer/Fall Issue 18. She was also the Flash Prose lead editor for the Women’s National Book Association Writing Contest 2020. Currently she is working on her novel along with several short stories. In her spare time she co-hosts a movie review podcast called Worth a Watch with Loumarie and Steve found streaming on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She can usually be found lurking in coffee shops, traveling, or attempting to read several books at once. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at @rloumarie26.